Rebecca Duke, a senior associate in the Democracy and Governance Practice at Chemonics, shares three Lessons for operationalizing a new mindset for people-centered justice in global development.

People-centered justice (PCJ) has emerged as an important mindset shift when it comes to designing, implementing, and measuring the success of rule of law (ROL) projects. Recognizing the inherent limitation of top-down approaches to ROL strengthening, the ROL development community has begun to rethink justice as a service to be delivered. This new thinking requires a proper understanding of the expectations and preferences of justice users (those accessing the justice system, both formal and informal). Chemonics is on the forefront of this new approach to ROL strengthening, informed by its rich history of reorienting justice from centralized institutions to the community and through its recent inauguration of two PCJ-specific USAID projects in Kosovo and Ukraine. Further, the recently completed Global ROL Summit hosted by Chemonics’ Democracy and Governance Practice featured presentations from internal and external PCJ experts including USAID and several PCJ innovators like the Hague Institute for Innovation of Law, Pathfinders for Justice, and the Center for Court Innovation. This field-tested experience and collaboration with innovators have produced lessons critical to future PCJ work.

Understand Justice Users’ Needs, Preferences, and Expectations

Data is critical. To maximize the benefit of ROL support for the justice user, we must know what the justice user cares about. As such, regularly asking the right questions is vitally important. Certain tools already being used in similar sectors, such as applied political economy analysis, social network analysis, and other landscape mapping frameworks, are excellent starting points for gathering the type and quality of data needed for PCJ work.

Avoid assumptions. While PCJ programming could look like traditional ROL programming, it also may not. Given the underlying shift in thinking to start with justice user perspectives and then develop and adapt programming, assumptions should be totally supplanted by data-driven conclusions.

Project example: USAID Dominican Republic Criminal Justice System Strengthened Project (CJSSP). During the 2021 ROL Summit, Chemonics’ CJSSP team highlighted the importance of collecting user data and not making assumptions. In its initial years of operation, the project team worked with justice institutions to build their capacity to respond to cases, particularly those involving gender-based violence (GBV). After completing many of these traditional ROL activities, the partner justice institutions and project team believed they had addressed the issues causing distrust in the system amongst GBV victims. However, a qualitative study of GBV victims’ needs in the second half of the project found that trust in the justice system continued to be low. If the project team had relied on their assumptions and not collected data on the justice users’ needs, they would not have been able to adjust their activities to achieve their intended goal of building trust and improving access to justice for vulnerable populations.

Don’t Just Focus on Institutions

Think systemically. Like any sector in which development practitioners engage, the ROL dimension comprises several actors and dynamics that present a complex network of agendas and incentives. When working in the justice system, implementers should consider the roles of formal government institutions (e.g., the ministry of justice, specialized courts, police, law associations, etc.) and informal institutions (e.g., community justice houses, social workers, CSOs, etc.). For PCJ programming to work, implementers must consider this litany of traditional and nontraditional entry points. Considering the justice user’s full journey and needs when navigating the justice system will provide a clearer understanding of the system and help implementers identify where on and off ramps for accessing justice need to be established or made more accessible.

Institutions are important but not sufficient. While PCJ programming does require a new mode of thinking when it comes to defining justice — understanding justice user preferences and responding accordingly — PCJ programming does not require neglecting traditional justice institutions and rule of law capacity building. In fact, PCJ programming likely will incorporate capacity building activities, such as improving case management systems, developing continuous education curricula, and improving judicial accountability, albeit to varying degrees and to varying ends depending on the context and constellation of preferences articulated by justice seekers.

Design Support Critically and Innovatively

The team is critical. Given the uniqueness of this approach to ROL strengthening, PCJ practitioners must be comfortable with new, innovative approaches to ROL work; quick to adapt to surprising data; and energized by the prospect of meeting justice users where they are. Implementers should consider developing interview questions and/or guides for project teams that help identify these characteristics. Recruiters should consider how applicants have responded to data contradicting the efficacy of their programming in the past, methods they have used for collecting data on justice users’ experiences, and examples of how they have introduced or contributed to innovative approaches in past projects.

Solutions require regular self-assessment. PCJ implementers must regularly assess the degree to which they are taking the pulse of justice users and properly integrating that data into MEL and workplans. Additionally, this requires that PCJ practitioners be willing to develop new MEL indicators that more accurately measure the justice user’s experience and the justice system’s response to the user experience.

Don’t fear failure. ROL practitioners must be willing to test new methods and work with new partners, knowing that failure is a possibility, and embrace the opportunity to learn.

Project example: USAID Ukraine New Justice Program. Chemonics’ Ukraine New Justice team is an excellent example of establishing a team eager to innovate and adapt to user needs. At the 2021 ROL Summit, program staff presented new online tools they developed with their partners to improve access to justice during the pandemic, such as the Solutions Finder platform. The team used data on the most common justice needs in the regions to identify three types of legal action frequently needed and built an online tool for justice users to gather information on the justice process and related paperwork for each type of action.

At its heart, PCJ is a mindset shift with the goal of shifting the balance from justice suppliers to justice users. This goal necessitates a proper, regularly updated understanding of justice users’ preferences. With this data in hand, solutions can begin to be conceived but only with an awareness by ROL implementers that the solutions may not look familiar. By orienting ROL support and objectives to the people actually seeking justice, ROL practitioners can begin leveraging the wealth of technical expertise and resources to refining, building, expanding, and rebuilding the various on and off ramps that are seen as viable pathways to justice.

For more details about the discussions, lessons, and potential next steps from the Rule of Law Summit, check out this summary: Fifth Annual Rule of Law Summit

Banner image caption:
 A training for Abunzi committee members in Rwanda. Abunzi committees act as mediators to provide a trustworthy source of arbitration when institutional justice sources may not be trusted. Chemonics staff members for USAID’s Duteze Imbere Ubutabera activity were among those that participated in the 5th Annual Rule of Law Summit. Photo credit: USAID’s Duteze Imbere Ubutabera Activity

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